First Nations Research

Alexis wears a blue and cream spotted shirt, with a light purple scarf. Her left hand is posed right below her face and she looks off into the distance.

Alexis Wright. Image: Giramondo Publishing

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research and writing are priority areas for the Writing and Society Research Centre.

We are committed to advancing Indigenous ways of doing, knowing and being, and pedagogical and research approaches that embody those principles. We support the aims of WSU’s Indigenous Strategy 2020-2025, including the significant work of our DVC Indigenous Leadership and Indigenous colleagues towards the establishment of WSU’s new Indigenous Centre of Excellence.

We are fortunate to include among our staff the world-renowned and award-winning Waanyi author Professor Alexis Wright, who in 2023 received the Creative Australia Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. We support postgraduate research by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and are committed to nurturing culturally safe working environments for our First Nations colleagues, students and community partners.

Below is an indicative list of research ongoing and undertaken in the Writing and Society Research Centre with a focus upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing, storying and cultures.

‘Like the Thunder’: Seeing Stories in the Gulf Country

This major ARC Indigenous Discovery project (IN240100137, 2024-2026) is held jointly by Professor Alexis Wright and Professor Anthony Uhlmann. It investigates the nature of relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The project will generate imaginative understandings of how new relations might have been built through the historical marriage of a Waanyi woman and Chinese man in the late gold rush era; consider the challenges of contemporary Aboriginal advocacy; and examine how storytelling allows us to understand the nature of relations. The outcomes will be presented in major works of fiction and non-fiction and a collection of scholarly essays. Cultural benefits include showing how storytelling helps reveal the essential nature of human relations, and how the capacity to remake relations is essential to intercultural reconciliation.

Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth

In 2013, supported by the Writing and Society Research Centre and working with Prof. Ivor Indyk, Prof. Alexis Wright was awarded an ARC Indigenous Discovery Award for the project Australian Indigenous Storytelling: A critical study of the way Aboriginal stories are being told in Australia today (IN130100026, 2013-2017). A centrepiece of this project was Prof. Wright’s monumental collective memoir of the visionary Eastern Arrernte leader Tracker Tilmouth, Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth, published by Giramondo in 2017. It won the Stella Prize, the Margarey Medal for Biography, and the Queensland Literary Award for Non Fiction.

Tracker Tilmouth was a strategist and a projector of ideas, renowned for his irreverent humour and his determination to tell things the way he saw them. Having known him for many years through her work in the Central Land Council, Prof. Alexis Wright interviewed Tracker Tilmouth along with family, friends, colleagues, and the politicians he influenced, weaving together multiple stories. Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth is as much a testament to the powerful role played by storytelling in contemporary Aboriginal life as it is to the legacy of an extraordinary man.

Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature

Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature was an ARC Discovery Project (DP 170101002, 2017-2020) involving four eminent Australian writers: Prof. J. M. Coetzee, Prof. Gail Jones, Prof. Nicholas Jose and Prof. Alexis Wright. They worked together with critics Prof. Anthony Uhlmann and A/Prof. Ben Etherington, and emerging novelist Samantha Trayhurn, to explore ways in which practising writers engage with writers from other literary communities. They also considered the ways in which these transnational and intranational relationships shape their own world-making practices.

The project was developed in response to developments in world literary studies. Over the first two decades of the twenty-first century, people working in this field asked questions relating to global systems of power, dissemination, exchange, translation, and interpretation, with theorists tending to work from systemic analyses to particular texts. Counter-critiques variously stressed literature’s irreducible specificity, its own peculiar world-making capacities, its resistances to commodification, and commitments to ideal forms of world literature that are opposed to globalisation.

The project’s themes explored versions of world literature that set out from each eminent author’s distinct and idiosyncratic engagements with the literatures of the world. In Oral Storytelling , Prof. Alexis Wright considered the challenges facing Aboriginal storytelling and the way that Aboriginal stories are told. This included considering the importance of memory, the archive, and the relation between the oral story and the written story. Prof. Nicholas Jose’s theme, Antipodean China, considered the presence of China and Chinese literature  in the work and imagination of writers in Australia, and vice versa. Prof. Gail Jones and Prof. J. M. Coetzee collaborated on a theme of Southern Encounters. This involved convening writers from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina to discuss the possibilities of writing from ‘the South’.

black&write! Evaluation for SLQ

In 2023, Wakka Wakka and Gooreng Gooreng publisher and scholar, Associate Professor Sandra Phillips, collaborated with Associate Professor Kate Fagan (Director, WSRC), Dr Katherine Kirkwood and Suzanne Gapps to secure a tender to evaluate the black&write! project, which is housed within the State Library of Queensland. Founded in 2012, black&write! is one of Australia’s most eminent and successful mentoring projects for Indigenous authors and publishers. The evaluation process involved extensive interviews with Indigenous Writer Fellows and Editing Fellows who are alumni of black&write!, and with key publishing and organisational staff. A/Prof. Sandra Phillips is a leading Indigenous publisher, editor and scholar in Publishing and Literary Studies, and the former Associate Dean of Indigenous Teaching and Learning in WSU’s School of Humanities and Communication Arts. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor with WSRC.

The Writing Zone

The Writing Zone is a grant-funded mentoring program for emerging writers and arts workers from Western Sydney, co-founded by A/Prof. Kate Fagan (Director, WSRC) and Dr Catriona Menzies-Pike, former Editor of the SRB. The Writing Zone is designed to help young writers from Western Sydney to tell their stories, polish their craft, publish their work, and build creative communities. It also offers employment and project management opportunities to emerging arts workers from the Greater Western Sydney region.

The Writing Zone is built around regular writing workshops that are guided by author-mentors and industry professionals. Writers share drafts and support one another in developing writing skills, and in learning how to edit their own (and each other’s) work. Skills nurtured include how to pitch and refine creative work for publication; how to survive as a public artist; how to work with editors and publishers; how to build a sustainable creative practice; working in community with others; and how to safely navigate online environments.

Two places in The Writing Zone each year have been prioritised for First Nations writers. In 2022, TWZ published The Space Between, a digital chapbook of work edited by TWZ’s 2022 Program Officer, Garrigal and Walkaloa author and editor Ellen O’Brien; and in 2023, Twice as Many Stars, the final anthology for the 2022 cohort, jointly edited by Ellen O’Brien, Kate Fagan and Melinda Jewell.

Research Seminar Series

Since its inception in 2012, the Writing and Society Research Centre’s research seminar series  has included papers, readings and conversations by, and with, many leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and scholars. In 2023, for example, the program included Bundjalung author Melissa Lucashenko speaking with A/Prof. Sandra Phillips about Melissa’s 2023 novel Edenglassie; Kokomini author Graham Akhurst in conversation with Associate Professor Ben Etherington about Graham’s 2023 novel Borderland; Wiradjuri author Associate Professor Jeanine Leane and Koori/Goorie poet and scholar Evelyn Araluen, in conversation with Roanna Gonsalves, Quah Ee Ling and Astrid Lorange, for Writing Gender #3; and Djapu performer and storyteller Melanie Mununggurr, the featured artist for a special Bankstown Poetry Slam held on WSU’s Bankstown campus, as a collaboration involving WSU’s Literary Studies program and Western Sydney Creative, WSU’s Arts and Culture Decadal Strategy.

The Sydney Review of Books and Giramondo

Please see also the Sydney Review of Books and Giramondo Publishing websites to access a wide range of publications by leading First Nations writers published and supported by those literary organisations, including Prof. Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Jazz Money, A/Prof. Sandra Phillips, Dr Alison Whittaker, Ellen van Neervan, Dr Evelyn Araluen, A/Prof. Jeanine Leane and Dr Mykaela Saunders.

Ben Etherington and Graham Akhurst. Kokomini novelist Graham Akhurst with A/Prof. Ben Etherington, discussing Akhurst’s novel Borderland for the WSRC Research Seminar Series. Image: Sally Tsoutas